Sheryl Katzanek and Mike Hurley discuss BMC's Healing Pups therapy dog program, and how it has grown over the past few years.

Featured Speakers:

Claudio Morera, MD

Mike Hurley is a Clinical Engineer at Boston Medical Center.

Sheryl Katzanek is the Director of Patient Advocacy.

Learn More >>


Melanie Cole, MS (Host): A while back we talked about the Healing Pups program at Boston Medical Center and today we’re here to give you an update. My guests are Sheryl Katzanek—she’s the director of patient advocacy—and Mike Hurley, he’s a clinical engineer. Together they're the cofounders of the Healing Pups program at Boston Medical Center. I'm so glad to have you both on with us again. I have never forgotten this program. In all the time that we’ve talked about it, I've never forgotten the name, I've never forgotten the program. Mike, why don’t you refresh for the minds of listeners about the Healing Pups program and how and why it was established?

Mike Hurley (Guest): So the program started in late 2012. It started with a few dogs. Nothing really came of it. I read an email that the hospital was looking for dogs that were therapy dogs to join the program. I had a very lovely dog who was not a therapy dog, but I decided to enroll him in classes right away. I reached out to Sheryl and said that my boxer and I would love to be in the program. He became a therapy dog and he started work just before the Marathon Bombing. Then he worked, continuing with the Boston Marathon Bombing patients and their families. I think that’s really what kicked the program off. The hospital was in need of comfort. The best way we could do comfort was bringing four legged friend into the hospital for everybody.

Host:   So then Sheryl, give us an update. What's changed with Healing Pups? Tell us how it’s going.

Sheryl Katzanek (Guest): Well, it’s going incredibly well. What’s changed is really how much the program has grown. As Mike said, we started with two or three dogs. We now have 17 active dogs. We were up to 20 pups at one point, but one retired and two have moved away. So it’s just been a labor of love. We now have dogs on the waiting list. I think what makes our program so special is that of the 17 pups we have, 15 of them, their handlers are BMC employees. So obviously Mike and I we have several physicians. We have a nurse practitioner. We have people from all over the hospital that get to share the love of their pup with other staff, patients, and visitors.

Host:   Mike, as I understand it and we’ve talked about Dexter your beloved pup in the past, but now you have a new one. Tell us about Mason.

Mike:   Yeah. So after Dexter passed I did take a little time off from the program. I was still active with the program and helping behind the scenes, but not having a therapy dog. Not having a dog kind of prevents you from bringing your therapy dog to work, of course. But I work with a rescue and they sent me a photo and a little bio of a dog coming up from Arkansas. When I looked at the photo, I thought, “How did they get a picture of Dexter sitting in the back of a car when he was a pup?” Then I read on. I was like it’s not Dexter. It’s a new dog that they want to send up and they know I'm a boxer lover. So I decided okay. We’ll take him. He came up from Arkansas and he was just a love. He was a year and a half, and I thought, “Oh, he’s going to be a therapy dog.” So I immediately enrolled him in therapy dog classes, and he was certified and is an active member.

Host:   Sheryl, tell us a little bit about what these pups—for listeners that don’t really know—what do they actually do for the patients? You can even include how they're helping at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless.

Sheryl:   The vast majority of the visits are really about comfort. The dog will walk into the room, and really the handler just makes the introduction and the dog gets to do the rest. So seeing a furry friend is often a nice diversion from a hospital stay. The dog doesn’t poke or prod. The dog is just there to kind of help ease the burden or the pressure or the sadness of being hospitalized and battling illness. There are occasions where we will receive requests from either occupational therapy or physical therapy to actually be part of a therapy session with a patient. If a patient, for instance, who might have recently had surgery needs to get out of bed but is not feeling up to it, we’ll go in and ask them, “Would you be willing to take a dog for a walk around the unit?” I’ll tell you. Nobody has ever said no to it. Or even just petting a dog or opening and closing one’s hand if it has a dog treat in it is part of occupational therapy often for patients who have had stroke. So the variety of ways in which these pups can be used is kind of endless.

You mentioned we do also once a week, five of the pups go over to our colleagues across the street at Healthcare for the Homeless to visit patients who are at Barbara McInnis house, which is a respite for homeless individuals. It’s just been wonderful. The dogs don’t judge. They don’t care what circumstances in life might have lead patients to this point. Probably the most special thing is the dogs are an entre into people’s stories. All you have to do is sit down next to somebody and say, “Did you ever have a dog growing up?” Then they tell you their life story and it’s really been a privilege and a pleasure.

Host:   Mike, tell us a little bit. For people that may be a little bit afraid of dogs and think, “Oh, well I don’t know that I’d want a dog to come into my room.” What goes into the training? As you’ve done this numerous times now, what goes into the training to make it so that these dogs go in? Is it natural in them? Is it innate? Or is there very specialized training to keep it so that there is no aggression so that even if the person is afraid or if it’s a child that the dogs right away can ease those fears.

Mike:   Before a dog can become a therapy dog, they really have to have the right temperament. I've had several dogs between Dexter and Mason, and I knew that they were not therapy dog material. They were either shy or jumpers. When you see a dog and you see how relaxed they can be around complete strangers and allow to be pet anywhere in any situation, you can realize oh okay. This dog is good for the program. You can't then just say okay, I'm ready. They have to have extreme obedience training. By that it’s being able to sit down, stay, leave it on command. Then they have to be certified. So I know that my two, Dexter and Mason, were certified through a third-party called Dog Bones. They're only job—They don’t train, they only certify the dog and the handler as a pair to make sure that no one is going to get hurt. That the dog is not going to jump and knock somebody over or nip or eat something off the floor that they shouldn’t be eating. So it’s a rigorous three week—I don’t want to say training. More of a seminar. At the end if your dog passes you get the vest that you are a certified therapy dog.

Sheryl:   One of the uses for the dog—and in fact it’s happening now—is we had a child psychiatrist reach out to us. She has a patient who is horrifically afraid of dogs. So we are going up there. We started with Nelly who is a three pound teacup chihuahua to meet the patient, and she’s asked for another dog to come for another visit to try to do some exposure therapy to help alleviate the fear that people experience. Fears of dogs are real. We all recognize—all of the handlers recognize—that all that it takes is one bad experience and somebody can be very, very frightened and we’re all very sensitive to that.

Host:   Well that’s certainly true as I've known plenty of people that are afraid of dogs in my life. I was raised with collies—full grown male collies. So they were around me all the time. So Mike, first last word to you as we wrap up this update on Healing Pups. What would you like the listeners to know about your Healing Pups? About what they can do for patients and your families and really how special they are to the BMC community.

Mike:   For people that are hearing this, I would love for them to know that we are available for patients, families, and staff. I think a lot of people when they come into a hospital, they don’t realize that there is a program. It’s not just Boston Medical Center. Other hospitals around have equivalent programs. It’s not well known. We would love for people to know that when you come to Boston Medical Center if you are a dog lover like I am, please ask your caregiver are there dogs available. They’ll reach out to the Healing Pups program and we will do our best to show up. We have a dog usually seven days a week.

Host:   And Sheryl last up to you here. What would you like—As the director of patient advocacy, what would you like the community at large and even other hospitals that are thinking of implementing programs like this about the benefits that you’ve seen, the outcomes with patients, the joy that these Healing Pups have brought.

Sheryl:   You're right. I think the word that you used is joy. I think all of the handlers could tell you stories of how profound some of the interactions have been. I would just say it’s all in the name. We originally named the program Healing Pups. We thought it was a nice name. However, I think all of us who have observed these dogs in action have really come to recognize that they do offer healing on a very different level than what is considered traditional western medicine. Even people who are very cynical at first about having dogs in the hospital have become true believers that having them here is just very, very special. I feel very privileged to be able to be a small part of that.

Host:   Well, I applaud both of you. Both for these pups that get to really help people and for the people that they're helping and bringing joy to. What a wonderful program. Thank you so much for joining us and updating us on what’s going on with the Healing Pups. That wraps up this episode of the Boston Med talks with Boston Medical Center. You can head on over to our website to learn more about the Healing Pups program at If you found this podcast as cool as I did, please share. Share with the members of the community. Share with your friends and family because that’s how we all learn about programs like this together. Someone you might know might benefit from this Healing Pups program. Be sure not to miss all the other interesting podcasts in the Boston Medical Center library. Until next time I'm Melanie Cole.